Why Dinosaurs Matter

I’m reading a great book about dinosaurs, and had no intention of sharing this secret passion of mine with you. For that I must apologize. It’s not that I didn’t think you’d be interested in dinosaurs. After all, they are generally extremely cool. They’re mostly big – okay – huge, and, for most people are the kind of thing that make you stop and stare. They’re probably the source of many deep myths – dragons, giants, that sort of thing. The reason I wasn’t going to bring it up was because I was reading this book for pure pleasure. Then I realized two things.

First, this is a darn good book. Buy it. Read it. Thanks. [1]

Second, the study of dinosaurs is something that should be on the syllabus for every behavioral scientist. That’s right, every person who is serious about studying behavior should learn about the dinosaur. Now, why is that?

Yes, again, they are cool; the source of great myths; they’re big, scary, and touch something primal within us. But these aren’t good reasons to study them. The real reason we need to study them is they were incredibly successful life forms. They lived a very long time on this planet, almost 300 million years, and counting. They survived a wide variety of environments, from cold to hot, from dry to wet. They existed on a wide variety of scales, from very small, to extremely large. Whatever it was they were doing, worked. And if we want to be successful, then we should know their secrets.

Wait just a minute, you say. What do you mean, if we want to be successful? Aren’t we successful already? Don’t I have a good job? Doesn’t my family have a big house? Isn’t my country the best in the world? Doesn’t my species have a lock on using up planetary resources until they’re gone?

One narrow way to define success is making money. But money represents a type of behavior; a behavior that allows us to trade with each other using a proxy. That proxy is a piece of paper that says “I’m worth one dollar.” We all agree to this, and pieces of paper go traveling about while goods and services travel in the opposite direction. If your success is collecting more pieces of paper than everyone else, so be it.

As a scientist, we want definitions that are closer to being constants of nature. Biology requires us to think in terms of survival. You are successful if you live, that’s number one. Number two? You have to reproduce.

So the Great Game of Life begins. This is not weekend American football. It is not spying. In this game your genes get a chance to be passed on yet again. Money means little here, for the billionaire without offspring loses to the penniless mother. She has passed on her genes, the billionaire can only pass on his wealth. This is the greatest game of them all. If you can survive long enough to reproduce, you have won the smallest of battles in the Great Game of Life. If your family lives for several generations, they have won their own small battle. For your species to survive multiple generations is the smallest of battles at that scale. And if a particular life form, like dinosaurs, can exist for a million years, then they have only won a single battle in the Great Game.

What, a million years is only a single battle? How can this be? Here we must invoke some numbers, for this is a matter of scale. Life, in any form, has left tracks of its humble beginnings in Australian rocks roughly 3 billion years old. This becomes our base, our standard. Anything alive today has to compare itself to all life. If you’ve been alive 3 billion years, then you can claim to be the king of all life. Unfortunately for you, there’s a good chance a random rock is going to come along and dethrone you. It’s happened at least 5 times as far as we can tell.

As people – well, H sapiens anyway – we’ve been around about 150 thousand years. In percentage terms, that’s only about one half percent of one percent of all life, 0.00005. If we want to claim our primate heritage as being successful, then we can point to roughly 60 million years of success, as long as success includes hanging about in trees and running about like squirrels. In this case we have a good 2% of the entirety of life to cling to, or 0.02. All said, us primates have a shot at winning the Great Game. Or do we? After all, we’ve really only been the dominant species for about 10 thousand years. That’s such a small percentage of the Great Game I’m not even going bother writing out all the zeros.

The dinosaurs go back about 200 million years, and were easily dominant about 100 million. Let’s see, 100 million into 3 billion, that gets us … 3 percent, or 0.03. And that 3 percent is when they were dominant – not just existing, like us primates.

Which brings us back to why we should study dinosaurs. We want to win the Great Game.

What? You say you’re not interested in winning? You don’t even care about the Great Game? You don’t care if your species lives or dies in the next century? The next millennium? Tomorrow? Then there’s a good chance you’re not interested in behavior in the first place. You probably have your own version of success, most likely collecting those pieces of paper, and will hone your own behaviors so as to maximize that success. If you don’t care, then nothing can change your mind.

If you do care, if you are concerned with the fate of our species, our planet, then we owe it to ourselves and our posterity to learn as much as possible in order to succeed. The best way to succeed is to embrace the study of behavior in all its forms. For behavior is everything that all life does. It’s not only a smile or a handshake, but how we set up our government or blow up our cities. It’s how we adapt as a species over great spans of time, where a century counts as seconds, and millennia are as minutes.

To study behavior, we must look upon its atoms. For instance, a smile is one of the smallest units we have, an instant in time starting with hot neurons touching many facial muscles. We smile, and just as quickly, it’s gone. As scientists, we must be able to take that single smile and use it to understand the Great Game.

This is easier to visualize in the physical world, because we can see how the smallest of objects is connected to great events. Consider the snowflake, a unique combination of water, cold and convection that lasts only as long as the distance between its birthing cloud and the cold hard Earth below. Combine that snowflake with a googol of its brethren and you have a glacier, a glacier that challenges Time. As a glacier, that snowflake carves canyons, moves mountains, and crushes continents. Yes, crushing continents, for if it ever melts away, that continent will spring out of the ocean like a bobbing duck.

To understand that glacier, we must also understand that snowflake. To understand all life, and to have a chance at winning the Great Game, we must understand the smile. We must be able to connect that smile to whatever made the dinosaur so successful. This is why paleontology matters. Paleontologists have barely begun to scratch the surface, and look at what they have learned. We need to find out more if we are to have a chance at winning the Great Game.

One of the things they have already taught us is that dinosaurs are not extinct, they have survived in the form of birds. What does this mean for competing in the Great Game? It means that we should also be listening carefully to those who also study birds, and by extension, those who study all life. The ornithologist, the ecologist, and the biologist are all important players in this competition. They can help us connect the dots between that smile, and what it will take for us to survive a million years.

All life matters, whether it still breaths or not. There is something to learn from every species, and for our species to stand by as many disappear is one of the great tragedies of our time. It’s like being in school and intentionally throwing away the answer pages in the back of your textbook. Each species has something to teach us, each species contains an answer to an unasked question. Competing in the Great Game means that our species is always being put to the test, and when taking an open book test, it’s always helpful to have a handy answer guide. And Mother Nature always gives open book tests – it’s up to us to learn how to use it.

This is why studying the dinosaur matters. They have much to teach us, whether it is through 100 million year old fossils, or by teaching them to do simple math. The Great Game is being played, and I would like to see us succeed.

Do you think we will succeed?


[1] The book is called “My beloved Brontosaurus” by Brian Switek.

Read more about it here: http://books.scientificamerican.com/fsg/books/my-beloved-brontosaurus/

and see his website here: http://brianswitek.com/